Tonglen for a Tortured Soul

The swinging doors bang open and the gurney is shoved into the Emergency Room. An elderly man is on the gurney gasping for air, his life ebbing away. I sit within six feet behind an opened glass doorway, watching as the paramedics work their magic on his frail body. Chest compressions, IVs, a tube snaked down his airway to provide oxygen to his rapidly declining oxygen saturation levels. The movement around this human is frantic in stark contrast to his body, unmoving, responding only to the reaction of the hands on his chest, the tube down his throat. Chemicals are injected into his body. No obvious physical response. He moans as they push down on his chest.

In the midst of these heroic measures to revive this dying patient, I wonder at his life, his family, his current situation. Are family members waiting for word of his condition just outside the room? Will he survive another day?

In those last moments of this man’s life, I turn to Tonglen, giving all compassion and love that I have and taking on any suffering this man has experienced. These first tentative steps in this practice in this “real life” are awkward. I reach into my mind for the structure of the practice and slowly, as if learning how to think for the first time, begin the offering. As the patient wheezes on the gurney, I imagine taking on his suffering as my own. I visualize the suffering as a kind of dark smoke lifting from his body and into my own. As it enters, I dispel the ichor into the bright, clear, luminous nature of my mind, imagining the cloud dissipating into nothing. In exchange, I breath out love and compassion as I hear the paramedics use technical jargon to refer to the passing of this man’s life from his body. I stay with the practice until they take his body away, wheeling the portable bed to another room in the hospital. After about thirty minutes, I rest.

Breathe in all of the pain and suffering; breathe out all of the love and compassion.”

Tonglen, taking on suffering and giving compassion, is one of the main practices in my meditation routine. I’ve followed this practice after hearing a teaching from Alek Zenkar Rinpoche. Rinpoche gave a concise talk on the nature of Lojong and Tonglen, and the need for such a practice in our lives. At it’s core, it is about ending the false sense of dualism in our lives; the idea that we are somehow separate from everyone around us. Tonglen helps us recognize that, at our core, we are all the same. We will all face the tragic end of our lives on a gurney, in a hospital bed, or in some other setting we rarely get to choose.

As I reflect on my own experience with Tonglen, I’m drawn into the strange and sad tale of our current state of existence in the United States. The stark and sharp divisions between political parties and, more importantly, families and individuals, it harrowing. In my own situation, distant family members have decried the “fraud” in the election and the spread of “fake news.” Their anger, unwieldy and disconnected from reality, is obvious.

It has taken me a while, and, now I begin the process of Tonglen related to my family. To genuinely and passionately take on that fear and anger only to release back love and compassion. I imagine going to a Trump rally and simply being in the place, doing this same practice for those around me. To ask nothing in return and to give without acceptance or recognition.

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